Peek across the counter at Naomi Joe Coffee and you might wonder where the espresso for the cortado you just ordered will actually be brewed.
The machines at this cafe, tucked inside 7 Seas Brewing’s Tacoma taproom, are small enough to fit on your home countertop. One of the boxy structures is covered in clear acrylic, revealing colorful surgical tubes that make it look more like a late-90s translucent iMac than a means to a caffeinated end. It is, in a way, a computer: Attached to the top is a tablet, connected to the internet, that reads a software program, telling the machine to heat the water to a particular temperature and open that valve at this particular moment to pull a shot of espresso. Just like your phone, it receives updates, but the precision of the programming lies in the user’s hands.
In this case, those belong to Kyle Willingham.
Taking a fastidious, data-driven approach to both roasting and brewing, his coffee beans are particular in their flavor profiles, and the drinks he creates at Naomi Joe poised to impress coffee nerds and those just looking for a refreshing jolt.
Whether in a classic cortado, a long black or an iced sipper with sparkling tonics, Willingham’s style leans into the bright, pleasantly acidic nature of new-age coffee.
His springtime blend, Sugar Plum Blossom, holds notes of plum, candied nuts and dried fruit. (It will be replaced by a Pride-themed summertime blend that Willingham said reminds him of fruit punch.) Disco Juice, a “half-caf” blend, meaning part-decaf, carries Fruit Loops, light molasses and juicy citrus, according to the tasting notes. Silva’s Gold, a single-origin from Minas in eastern Brazil, recalls orange blossom, baker’s chocolate and jasmine.
At the shop on a Wednesday in May, he ground beans to order in a Versa Lab grinder, then flattened them with a digitally-weighted tamp set precisely to 22 grams. We compared a longer pull — 33 seconds — of the Sugar Plum to a more typical 27-second run. All day, said Willingham, he is adjusting bit by bit, searching for the ideal cup.
“It depends on what the coffee’s needs are,” he said. “You should express yourself, let the coffee express itself, and go with what you think is good and what’s working.”
The coffee world, he posited, has long understood that raw beans differ based on their geographic origins, in how they are roasted and stored. But not as much attention has been paid to the surrounding elements of, for example, moisture and elevation at the time of brewing. The machines — from a brand called Decent Espresso developed by a software engineer with offices in Seattle, San Francisco and Hong Kong — at Naomi Joe are built to allow the user to quickly accommodate those nuances.
Willingham believes he is the only coffee shop in Washington to be using them and likely one of but a few nationwide. They can only be purchased directly through the manufacturer, unlike most major equipment producers that go through wholesalers. Comparatively, they are also less expensive than the classical machines, so coffee aficionados with disposable income buy them for home use. While still mechanical, the Decent Espresso machines embrace modern technology, including heating water instantly (within four minutes, said Willingham) rather than requiring a constantly-on, energy-heavy system. Think of what you can do with a digital camera and sophisticated production software, for instance, over black-and-white film.
“You work smarter, not harder,” laughed Willingham. “‘But what if you do it this way?’ This is like a coffee expo that you can walk into every day!”
NAOMI JOE’S COFFEE ROASTING
Willingham roasts on-site at 7 Seas in the galley space previously home to 3uilt Coffee (which brewed Manifesto beans) and Tacoma’s Valhalla Coffee. Each Naomi Joe batch — a little over three pounds — takes about 12 minutes.
Because he works alone, he usually roasts when the shop is closed.
“A lot of the roasting is just getting everything set up,” he said as he prepared a batch of Zero Proof decaf from Colombia. The roaster heats for a half-hour before he adds the beans, which drastically drop the temperature, similar to dropping dried pasta into boiling water. Then the goal is to “equalize” the internal thermostat of both the beans and the roaster itself.
“Then we cut the heat,” he explained, letting the exhaust fan suck out that energy.
“You don’t want to overdo it, because then it would kind of immediately get stale,” he said, noting the crackling sound of the beans expanding in size.
At home from his job bartending at State Street Beer Co. in 2020, Willingham began tinkering on a small roaster gifted by the owners, who also operate Lander Coffee in Tacoma’s North End.
“I started playing with it, and thought, ‘This is so wild and expansive! And I’m so confused about everything,’” he recalled. “What’s weird is the science isn’t actually, like, written out.”
Trained as a commercial instrument pilot, he added, “The best way I can explain roasting, is like flying.”
After a few months, he upgraded to a slightly larger machine and moved into a commercial space shared with Balloon Roof Baking Co. Naomi Joe launched as a subscription-based coffee brand in 2021, quietly cultivating followers at pop-up events around Tacoma.
Named after his grandparents Naomi and Joe, the brand’s mascot — an adorable stick-figure running man — honors his grandfather, known in his family as Paka. He signed all of his cards that way, said Willingham.
At the new cafe, guests have access to the entire space, which includes lounge-ready couches by the oversized factory windows open on warm days, high-tops and long picnic-style tables. Also: 7 Seas beer and food by Canteen by Camp Colvos, serving a stellar smashburger.
“I’m really trying to sell this as a work-from-home place,” said Willingham.
Here, you get the extra perk of sipping on one of the finest cups of espresso you can find in Tacoma — and perhaps one of the most unique cups in the Pacific Northwest.
NAOMI JOE COFFEE
▪ 2101 Jefferson Ave. (located inside 7 Seas Brewing), Tacoma, naomijoecoffee.com
▪ Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
▪ Details: friendly coffee roaster and cafe with ample seating inside spacious taproom; retail bags available for purchase on-site and online
▪ Recommended: espresso, cortado or long black; sparkling espressos with rose water tonic or lemonade; sparkling cold brew (regular or decaf) with bitters
▪ Full menu of lattes, hot chocolate, chai, select teas and Italian sodas also available; most drinks $3-$6